Hope (6/8): To be or not to be

Reading time: 8 min.

In last week’s blog we were looking at how hopeful people find, in a world that seems locked down by the powerful, that it’s actually a place of continuous change, where ‘the power of the powerless’ counts. For people well-grounded in hope, even our stubbornly violent ways carry the potential to move towards well-being and justice.

But if we imagine that the whole point of hope is to find a cure for what’s ill, or to fix what’s broken – then we’re lumping ourselves with another illusion. The people I’ve been talking with – all of whom work with hope in some way – don’t seem to see things in this way.

Joe’s a nurse. I meet him in a pub garden by the river; it’s late summer and the sun’s just going down. I want to hear about nursing as ‘hope’s work’, but this is only the latest chapter of Joe’s unusual journey. He tells me that as a young man he squatted in London and lived as an activist, getting himself arrested for blockading nuclear weapons bases. He carried a lot of anger then, he says. To deal with it he trained as a blacksmith, to ‘channel rage and aggression into making objects of use and beauty’.

Joe says that after several years beating iron into beautiful things, he’d begun looking for ‘a way to express love’, and this is when he retrained as a nurse. Now he’s in his early fifties. Despite the knackering shifts and hospital politics, he still says a nurse’s vocation is ‘an everyday exercise in the expression of love between humans’.

Joe chose to start his nursing career in palliative care, with people who are dying. Mainstream medicine is all about curing people, he says, but for the terminally ill that model has already failed. What does hope mean for people who can’t be cured – whose future is about to vanish?

Clearly, optimism won’t help us here. An optimist foresees a future in which things get fixed, but the dying can’t be fixed. If optimism were all we had to bring to the dying, we’d soon abandon them like so many broken machines. So why don’t we?

‘You wouldn’t abandon hope for the person in the bed,’ says Joe, as if it’s obvious. The reason? ‘There’s nothing about the imminence of death that makes the present not worth living.’ The nurse’s hope for their patient is ‘a good death’, and they ‘do the loving in the face of death’, Joe explains, accompanying the patient as an ally on the way. An ending is coming, but it’s not an enemy.

‘There’s nothing about the imminence of death that makes the present not worth living.’

Perhaps it needs saying that a dying person doesn’t lose their worth just because their future is short; they deserve love no less when they’re about to die than when they were newly born. ‘What’s it like to bathe someone who’s dying?’ Joe muses. ‘It could be as simple as flanneling their face because they don’t have the strength to do it…’ In a health profession worthy of the name, washing the face of a dying patient is as much hope’s work as washing a newborn baby.

If we wouldn’t abandon hope for the ill, why would we abandon hope for our wounded earth, all its societies, each one of us? Even if humanity’s fate were sealed – though it isn’t – hope’s work would lose nothing of its power or point: there’s always a here-and-now in which to live. So, even after ‘the curative intent is stripped away’, as Joe puts it, a truly grounded love still won’t miss a heartbeat.

I wrote this parable for my book, Hope’s work:

A rich man plunders an ancient forest until, one day, only a single tree is left alive. That morning Optimism and Hope pass on the way. ‘Optimism!’ says Hope, ‘you’ve been here from the beginning, why are you leaving?’ Optimism answers, ‘Because only one tree is still alive. What about you, Hope – you’re so late arriving, why have you come?’ And Hope says, ‘Because only one tree is still alive.’

Society is still alive, too, and the earth is not yet down to its last tree. We the people are not broken like a defunct machine. We’re wounded, for sure – and for millions it’s worse than a wound – but as far as we know society itself is not about to die. We have a future; certainly a troubled one, but a future we will still need to live in. To paraphrase Joe, unless we’ve been crushed by events, life is still worth living well, and death is worth dying well, and the present is worth being present in whatever the future may bring.

And what of the future? We don’t know it. All we can know is whether there’s something to live for, and there is. There’s everything to live for, because everything that lives is worth living for. So however bleak the horizon may seem, there’s no getting off the hook of hope’s work. Whatever waits for us in the future, our messed-up societies, our violated ecology, and every single one of us still deserve our collective love, just as we always have.

Life is still worth living well, and death is worth dying well, and the present is worth being present in whatever the future may bring.

Joe’s best mate is Jo. She’s been an activist all her life. As a child in the 1980s, learning about the danger of nuclear annihilation left her shaken, just as the risk of ecological collapse strikes grief and fear today into many young children today. Visions of nuclear war dug their way into Jo’s dreams at night, and surfaced by day in her early writing at school. In one story she hid her family in the basement, where they drank lemonade for a year until they climbed the stairs to a devastated world.

As a young woman, Jo threw herself into nonviolent direct action to stop new roads and runways, the genetic tampering of seeds, and the race for more oil and coal. She railed especially against the domination by corporations of what doesn’t belong to them: the food chain, the lands of indigenous peoples, the political system…

Jo says her driving impulses in the early days were fear and anger, although, like many activists including my own younger self, she wasn’t fully conscious of this at the time. However much she did, it never felt enough, and she’s been burnt out more than once. If Jo could talk to her younger self now she’d tell her to ‘chill a bit’, she says, but she doesn’t regret her tempest of activism; her choices were made in love – of people and earth, and the vitality that Jo finds in them every day. And she’s a musician, she’s played and sung through all of it.

Now Jo is researching how we respond emotionally to climate breakdown, and she supports activist movements like Extinction Rebellion to keep going without burning out. Has her dread of the future left her? She says it’s still there, but she’s committed to living with that future, whatever it may be; she, too, hasn’t made an enemy of it. In an earlier blog we touched on ‘acceptance’ as a core condition of hopefulness; Jo’s word for this, in her own life, is ‘equanimity’.

Just as when I met Joe, this Jo and I are talking as it’s getting dark. We’re on the front deck of her narrowboat, moored by a field under a clear sky, and she’s lit a candle for me so that I can make my faint pencil notes. It’s fully night by the time we finish. ‘We’re in a for a really rough ride’ with the coming climate chaos, she says quietly, and in my body I can feel the truth of her words. I ask what that means for her as a person of hope, and she takes a moment. ‘There’ll always be a path towards health and connection,’ she answers finally, ‘and that’s the path I think I’m treading and it’s the path I want to tread more.’

‘There’ll always be a path towards health and connection, and that’s the path I think I’m treading and it’s the path I want to tread more.’

What I understand from Jo and Joe is that, when people act out of hope, it’s not because it works – not because it changes things – even though it does. They do it because hope’s work is who they are. The alternative is to be less than who they mean to be, so they look for their part to play, whether or not the wind is blowing their way. So this is our fifth condition of conscious hope: authenticity, yes, but the particular quality of authenticity that’s expressed as a commitment.

And if the work of hope is a way of being who you really are, then it’s also a way of being free. What hope demands from us in love, it gives back in freedom.


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